The People Who Save Your Life

When you make one mistake too many, these are the folks you pray you'll see.

Field & Stream Online Editors

It was the third day of moose season, and cold and gray in Wyoming. Ken Boese, a mechanic, was riding into the hills with his 10-year-old son, Josh, crouched behind him on the ATV, hugging his back. Boese, 47, had spent a lifetime hunting deer, antelope, and elk, but in 25 years of trying, he had never once pulled a moose permit. Now, in the fall of 2003, he finally had, and he was chasing after a bull way up on Munger Mountain.

Munger is a small hill compared to the peaks nearby in Teton County, Wyoming, but it rises sharply to its bald, treeless summit, and the trail is rocky and narrow. Ken Boese had navigated steeper inclines with his son before, though. So now he leaned forward and went for it. Boese stood, working the throttle, but his lean was constrained by the windshield. The front wheels bucked up, and the vehicle flipped down into a ravine. It rolled over Boese's chest as his son skittered out of the way.

Boese felt like his ribs were broken, and he could hardly breathe. "You're going to have to run for help," he told Josh, "because if you don't, I might not make it." The Boeses were 5 miles away from the nearest road, and they did not have a cellphone.

Josh sprinted downhill. "I was crying," he remembers, "and I fell and bruised my knee. When I got tired, I just lay down and rolled."

**The A-Team **

Every county in the United States has a search-and-rescue (SAR) squad, or at least access to one. The vast majority are volunteers, and those in Wyoming's Teton County happen to be among the nation's most talented. The county is essentially the outdoor sports capital of the West. In its largest town, Jackson, lithe distance runners and mountain bikers share the sidewalks with wealthy tourists who've flown in to flyfish and buy $10,000 bronze statues of cowboys from the gift shops on the main drag.

Six people apply for every spot on the 35-member Teton County SAR team, and the ones who make the cut are subject to 300 hours per year of the nation's most rigorous training. They learn, among other things, avalanche rescue, confined space rescue, and how to hop out of a hovering helicopter. Then they wait, pagers clipped to their belts.

The callouts come about once a week, and they're always a surprise. "When you get a page," says Ray Shriver, a civil engineer who has been with Teton County SAR since its inception in 1993, "it's like somebody has slapped you across the face. Your whole world becomes that mission."

The guiding principle of successful search and rescue is meeting a crisis with a logical plan, and the 56-year-old Shriver is the soul of wilderness ratiocination. Lean and soft-spoken, with a bushy wise man's beard and a high dome of a forehead, he has climbed the Grand Teton, a 13,770-foot peak in Wyoming, 25 times. Evenings, he makes laminated flash cards for his teammates. One, titled "First Five Minute Checklist," begins, "Establish an incident name. Establish command."

Shriver lives alone in a mountaintop log cabin he built himself. His house is lined with framed topo maps appointed with pins denoting his various SAR missions, and he always listens to the police scanner while driving. ("I learn about SAR incidents before we're even paged," he says, "and I can start thinking....") His GMC Jimmy is, at all times, packed with gear for almost any callout-a pair of snowshoes, for instance; a dry suit, a spare battery pack, and an avalanche transceiver.

Ray Shriver got the call at 10:58 A.M., right after Josh Boese hit the highway, gasping. Shriver left his office at once and then, at 55 miles per hour-crashing on the way to a rescue doesn't help anyone-he began crossing the county.

** With the Clock Ticking**
By the time Ray Shriver arrived at the Munger trailhead, his SAR cohort, Marvin Davidson, was already there. A hulking one-time football lineman, he bandages his frequent fing cuts with duct tape and favors gray sweatshirts cloudy with drywall dust. But Davidson, who is trained as an EMT, was just what the doctor ordered at Munger Mountain: He knows how to drive on a trail.

He plucked a backboard and some bottles of oxygen from the SAR supply truck and then began charging uphill with little Josh Boese and a fellow Teton County medic, Diane Benefiel, beside him on the front seat of his pickup. The hill slanted sideways; at times the uphill front wheel came up off the ground. "I thought we were going to tip over," remembers Benefiel.

All the while, Ken Boese was down in the ravine, unseen by the 15 SAR crew members who arrived one by one at the trailhead. Presumably, he was alive but at risk. "There was a possibility that he had an injured kidney, or maybe a ruptured spleen, or a broken pelvis," says Teton County SAR coordinator Doug Meyer. The general principle is that volunteers should get to internally injured patients like Boese during the "magic hour"-within 60 minutes of the accident. Boese had already been up there for 90 minutes when the first medics got to the trailhead. Meyer called for a helicopter.

Often, that's all there is to a rescue: Meyer calls, the chopper dives into the backcountry for a "swoop and scoop," and then it shuttles the patient over the mountains to St. John's Hospital in Idaho Falls, Idaho, a half-hour flight away.

This rescue was not going to be so simple. There was a distinct chance that Boese was so deep in the ravine that he would need to be lifted skyward by a team of volunteers hoisting a rope. It was also possible that the helicopter pilot would cancel. Black clouds were rolling in, and no charter company near Jackson is willing to fly in the rain.

Bereft of a helicopter, Teton County SAR would have to roll Boese out for 5 miles on a litter resting atop a bicycle wheel. (You can't cart out a guy with internal injuries in the back of a rattling pickup.) Meyer knew that two or three people were not enough; he would need extras-fresh haulers who could step in when their cohorts grew weary.

Meyer needed to rush a dozen people toward Munger's summit. He had two ATVs sitting on a trailer, and also a crew member willing to follow Davidson up the hill in her Chevy. But one vehicle had already crashed speeding up Munger Mountain that day.

"Every mission is a matter of weighing risks," Meyer says. "It doesn't make sense to save one person if you're going to endanger a whole SAR team in the process. We've said no before." (A few years earlier, though, Teton County SAR took a tremendous risk. A hunter was lying in the dark woods with a broken pelvis, and it was 40 degrees below zero. The helicopter pilot, accustomed to flying in daylight, flew in beneath a full moon.)

No one in Teton County SAR has ever been seriously hurt on a rescue mission, and this time Meyer reckoned, "Our people can deal with any given terrain so long as the weather's all right." A total of 13 medics, including a doctor, John Sherman, began driving up. Ray Shriver followed alone, on foot.

Hunters are perhaps the safest of Teton County's backcountry users, accounting for only about 10 percent of all SAR missions there. They shy away from crazy cliff dives favored by extreme skiers and mountain bikers, and they don't share the latter's bad habit of colliding with trees. But they're outside in autumn, when the weather is most variable, and they follow meandering game trails through the fog and snow, often losing track of where they are.

"Often, they go out underdressed," Shriver says, "in blue jeans instead of Gore-Tex. They get disoriented. Then they get cold. Most hunting-related rescues in Jackson County involve a victim who's lost and/or hypothermic. And the stories can get pretty bizarre."

Hypothermia numbs the brain. Sufferers tend to think that they're overdressed and rip off layers of clothes. Once a hunter in Teton County got naked and then climbed a tree to take refuge from bears. He dropped all his candy bars around the base of the tree and scattered his clothes in the branches. "When we got there," Shriver says, "we found his belt at the top. Apparently, he'd used it to strap himself into the tree. His corpse was in the vegetation nearby, almost buried. He'd broken his femur jumping down, and then he pulled leaves and pine needles over himself to keep warm. All we could see at first was his arm sticking out."

Shriver sees a lot of corpses. He's always been Teton County SAR's only search-dog handler, and whenever the crew gets a lost-person report-it happens roughly 10 times a year-Shriver is summoned, along with his German shepherd, Kita.

Kita is crucial. A search dog can find someone as quickly as 30 to 100 human SAR volunteers. Shriver trains Kita two or three days a week. Tugging at the end of a leash, she hunts for stuff that Shriver has buried, most notably decaying human bones that are wrapped in plastic. They have a sweet smell, like pork.

SAR searches are systematic and hyperlogical. Crews determine where to search by considering, first, where the person was last seen and last known to be, and then estimating, in percentage terms, how likely the person is to be in five or more different areas on a map. Crews make undulating sweeps on the land, and they keep returning to their incident commander and his master map. Working in this manner, Shriver has recovered over 25 bodies, among them an 18-month-old child and a skier who bled to death when his broken pole stabbed a main artery.

** The Trip Down**
At the top, Josh Boese leapt from the pickup and ran to his father. "The dad was propped up on one elbow," Diane Benefiel says, "and he was having serious difficulty with his left ribs. His chest was rounded. There was air under the skin, which meant that he had a punctured lung. He was guarding his ribs with his arms. At first, he wouldn't even let us touch his chest or lay him down. He was dehydrated and pale; he was in a life-threatening situation. We weren't going to be able to take him all the way down-he wasn't up to that." That meant they would have to get him to a landing zone where the helicopter would take over.

She tried to jab an IV into Boese but couldn't find a vein. Meanwhile, Dr. John Sherman gave Boese some morphine, then cut a hole into Boese's ribs and laid in a tube that drew air out of the damaged lung. "Air trapped in a punctured lung will expand as a helicopter rises," Sherman says, "and the flight nurse was afraid it would compress the heart."

Ray Shriver got to the top eventually and grabbed one side of the wheeled litter. The landing zone was 300 yards away-down a steep hill, through some brush, and down another hill to a flarip off layers of clothes. Once a hunter in Teton County got naked and then climbed a tree to take refuge from bears. He dropped all his candy bars around the base of the tree and scattered his clothes in the branches. "When we got there," Shriver says, "we found his belt at the top. Apparently, he'd used it to strap himself into the tree. His corpse was in the vegetation nearby, almost buried. He'd broken his femur jumping down, and then he pulled leaves and pine needles over himself to keep warm. All we could see at first was his arm sticking out."

Shriver sees a lot of corpses. He's always been Teton County SAR's only search-dog handler, and whenever the crew gets a lost-person report-it happens roughly 10 times a year-Shriver is summoned, along with his German shepherd, Kita.

Kita is crucial. A search dog can find someone as quickly as 30 to 100 human SAR volunteers. Shriver trains Kita two or three days a week. Tugging at the end of a leash, she hunts for stuff that Shriver has buried, most notably decaying human bones that are wrapped in plastic. They have a sweet smell, like pork.

SAR searches are systematic and hyperlogical. Crews determine where to search by considering, first, where the person was last seen and last known to be, and then estimating, in percentage terms, how likely the person is to be in five or more different areas on a map. Crews make undulating sweeps on the land, and they keep returning to their incident commander and his master map. Working in this manner, Shriver has recovered over 25 bodies, among them an 18-month-old child and a skier who bled to death when his broken pole stabbed a main artery.

** The Trip Down**
At the top, Josh Boese leapt from the pickup and ran to his father. "The dad was propped up on one elbow," Diane Benefiel says, "and he was having serious difficulty with his left ribs. His chest was rounded. There was air under the skin, which meant that he had a punctured lung. He was guarding his ribs with his arms. At first, he wouldn't even let us touch his chest or lay him down. He was dehydrated and pale; he was in a life-threatening situation. We weren't going to be able to take him all the way down-he wasn't up to that." That meant they would have to get him to a landing zone where the helicopter would take over.

She tried to jab an IV into Boese but couldn't find a vein. Meanwhile, Dr. John Sherman gave Boese some morphine, then cut a hole into Boese's ribs and laid in a tube that drew air out of the damaged lung. "Air trapped in a punctured lung will expand as a helicopter rises," Sherman says, "and the flight nurse was afraid it would compress the heart."

Ray Shriver got to the top eventually and grabbed one side of the wheeled litter. The landing zone was 300 yards away-down a steep hill, through some brush, and down another hill to a fla